Rock 'n' roll is a vocation to which many are called but few are chosen. Thirty-three years ago, a motley assortment of Southern California teenagers coalesced into something loosely resembling a rock band. In the beginning, they called themselves "Hop In," but soon they repented of their good taste and settled on the pointedly sophomoric name of Snotty Scotty and the Hankies.
The band heard the call, the burning bush whispering the usual Babylonian promises of musical success. Broadly speaking, it reckoned, success would bring excess, glorious carnal excess: riches, flashy clothes, fawning groupies, limousines, stardom, fame and fortune. Only after years of hunger and deplorably common existence do most bands realize their dream has died.
Not, however, Snotty Scotty and the Hankies. The members recognized almost immediately that their future was grim. But rather than pawn their instruments and slink away, they rallied. They chose not to be chosen, and they reveled in it. They got day jobs. They kept playing. They still play. And though their intrepidity may not have won them wealth and fame, it has earned them a certain notoriety. Most tangibly, they are perhaps the very soul of the wanton brattiness that defines Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade, the city's renegade rebuff to the strait-laced Rose Parade, in which they'll appear today for the 26th consecutive year. They have a similarly perfect record of attendance at the annual Celebration on the Colorado Street Bridge, and while their scruffy aspect and scruffier repertoire might seem at odds with an event that is a benefit for the genteel Pasadena Heritage Society, they are probably its main draw.
I'd heard their name invoked for years but hadn't laid eyes on them until the bridge celebration in July. Scott Finnell, lead singer, a gangly 6-foot-1 in Hawaiian shirt, rose-tinted aviator glasses and a face as craggy as a nuclear test site. Steve Bruen, pony-tailed, mutton-chopped, with a vague resemblance to Neil Young. Drake the Bass Player, a Winnebago of a man with long red pigtails suggesting an errant Viking. And finally, drummer Barbara Goodman, an unexpected injection of yin to the prevailing yang, though there was nothing girlie in the way she pounded the toms.
I judged them to be a band Neil Young would approve of because: Song by song, their set-list of sometimes familiar but frequently obscure covers constantly careened to the edge of falling apart, and sometimes did, which is the way rock should be. This was rock as a raggedy druidic religion, despite a lot of sloppiness, clowning and beery jokes hitting wide of the mark. Inside it was a sort of primitive energy, but mostly it was just fun, not the least because of Scotty, beer in hand, jumping and twitching as if he were gripping the wrong end of a battery cable, having the time of his life. The music may have lurched and sputtered, but it was infectious, and when the band lit into a jagged cover of "All Along the Watchtower," I found myself leading a weird sort of conga line prancing through the crowd. Which, really, is not like me.
At any rate, I began to ponder just what kept middle-aged dudes tilling the rocky soil of bar gigs, weddings and the like after so much time, after a hard day's work, when just loading and unloading the van (no roadies here) is truly tiresome. Actually, the answer was fairly apparent: They just didn't want to bother with growing up, a proposition that demands considerable devotion.
What follows is a ridiculous assertion, but stick with me and see if you don't find some truth in it. The male species can be divided into two basic categories: Those whose power fantasies center on being star athletes and those whose center on being rock stars. (Males who have achieved either don't count, but a man who does not indulge in one or the other is not trustworthy.) Frankly, I have no clue as to the existential meaning embedded in either choice, but for what it's worth, I am of the latter persuasion. Despite the fact that I can boast lifetime earnings as a professionally paid musician of $387.32, I have come to terms with the bitter and unjust probability that it is too late for me to become a rock star.
But here is Snotty et al, and they don't want to be anybody, which is a good thing, because in this they have pretty much succeeded. Scotty works by day as a window glazer, and Steve toils painting houses. The two are the core members of the band. They stuck with it while bassists and drummers came and went, although the man identified only as "Drake the Bass Player" has been with them 10 years. Their most consistent drummer among the deep bench of alternates is Tom Behrens, otherwise known as Billy Booger, but sometimes there's Barbara Goodman of the band The California Girls. She entered the picture after following the band's Doo Dah float on her unicycle and, according to Scotty, "basically refusing to go away until we let her join. She's the best thing that happened to us in a long time."
So I met Scotty, 52, and Steve, 47, in a bar in Los Feliz, at a neighborhood joint where the regulars notice people who aren't. We sat at the corner of the bar so that Scotty could keep an eye on the Niners game. The Niners were sinking fast, so the pair took to philosophizing.
Scotty: "I think you'd have to say the secret to our success--"
Steve: "What success?"
Scotty: "OK, our longevity. The secret to our longevity is humor. And democracy."
Steve: "It's not democracy. It's anarchy."
Scotty grew up in Pasadena, Steve in Whittier. Here is how the band got started: Steve hated school, and school didn't much like him either. When he found out he could get school credit for going to work and graduate early--albeit with straight Ds--he rejoiced and was taken on at the Brothers Pants Shop in Pasadena. Brothers was owned by Mel Stevens, who possessed a guitar, a van and a place to rehearse: all the makings of a rock band. A loose constellation of musicians began gathering at the shop, and Mel became the band's rhythm guitarist. One day a young man five years Steve's senior known as "Scott with the Pot" showed up and started singing, ordering people around, and displacing the bassist/singer Raphael, who, before walking out, denounced Scott as a "snot"--and thus were born the Hankies.
You could equate the Hankies' first gig with the person who slips his first nickel into a slot machine, wins a $10,000 jackpot and becomes a compulsive gambler. On New Year's Eve of 1971, for the princely sum of $100, the band was engaged to play a party for an organization called the Far Out Silent Club. Fortuitously, for the band, anyway, the club was a social organization for the deaf. "They danced up a storm, feeling the sound vibrations," recalls Scotty. "They weren't what you'd call a critical audience, but they had a great time, and we thought, 'This is good.' We were hooked!"
Shortly thereafter, the Hankies got a manager. He tricked them out in pompadour wigs, white shirts and black ties, thus nudging them into the '50s revival underway at the time. He booked them at high schools, from the desert to the sea, where they usually played a Friday morning assembly and a dance at night. It was for just such a gig that the Hankies were dispatched to Palm Springs, joined by an unauditioned substitute drummer who couldn't keep time. After the assembly and after sweltering all day in a cheap hotel, the band showed up to play the dance, only to be informed that it had been canceled. Of the 18 pre-sold tickets, refunds were demanded at the rate of 100%, and the rest of the high school had apparently colluded to boycott the dance.
Steve: "So we're all bummed. There's no gig and no money--"
Scotty: "So we bought two six packs. We're walking across the street when four kids drive by in a convertible Mustang--"
Steve: "And they yell, 'You guys suck!' "
They were down, but not out. Their manager successfully pushed them as the house band for has-been '50s stars angling for a comeback, most of them playing bars in Glendale. They backed up Big Joe Turner, the Chantels, Joe Houston, Bobby Day, Jackie Lee. The Chantels pulled up in a decrepit 1958 Ford station wagon "wearing fake furs," recalls Scotty. "It was not a pretty picture. We expected to do a quick rehearsal with them, but the lead singer waved us off. 'It's Ice Cream changes, honey.' [In music parlance, this means four basic chord changes.] And you don't have to do a thing. Because once they open their mouths, out come these cascading vocals and you can't do anything wrong. It was not only easy to follow, it was mesmerizing." Scotty adds with characteristic elegance: "That was just the most inspiring kind of . . . you could ever run into."
The Hankies thought their big break had come when they were chosen to play on the soundtrack for the 1975 film "Crazy Mama," produced by Julie Corman and directed by Jonathan Demme. A road movie with music based loosely in the vein of "American Graffiti," "Crazy Mama" called on the band's '50s chops to complement a roster of resurrected '50s hits. "We really thought we were on our way," Steve says.
In the intervening period, determined to make a go as full-time musicians, the band had taken up residence in the requisite rock 'n' roll den of iniquity that would come to be known as the "Hanky Hacienda." As you might expect, there was a certain amount of partying involved. The Hankies once crawled into a Pasadena sewer to jam because they liked the acoustics and played until the cops came. "They said people were complaining because noise was coming up through their toilets," Scotty says.
The Hacienda was a decaying, unfurnished three-story mansion in north Pasadena, with seven bedrooms and pocket glass beveled doors. They rented it for a song: $350 a month, which although divided as it was by five, did not deter them from being chronically late on the rent. To defray expenses and conserve cash for beer, drugs and other essentials, they rented their basement for $25 to then-unknown Eddie Van Halen, who was breaking in a new bass player before recording his first album. The arrangement ended on an acrimonious note, however, when Scotty's sleep-deprived brother, who worked the graveyard shift as a computer programmer, began shutting the power off while Van Halen rehearsed. Van Halen, Scotty says, expressed his displeasure by using his '67 Volvo to plow up the vegetable garden carefully tended by the Hankies' bass player.
This was perhaps a harbinger of things to come. A new manager lured them away and put them up for another movie score; they were sacked for not showing up for a meeting. "Suffice it to say we were young and very naive as to the ways of Hollywood," Scotty says. "We figured we'd just reschedule. It was tantamount to a blacklist, and we never heard from anybody again." Then they lost their bass player, who took exception to having his glass of Pagan Pink Ripple laced with LSD, a gesture Scotty defends as a sincere effort to unshackle the bassist of the inhibitions from a religious girlfriend ("It had worked for me!"). A jury-rigged tour of Canada fell apart when their manager, a devout Mormon, caused them to miss a plane by lecturing them on the evils of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, never mind that he was booking them. Their equipment took off for Montana, but the Hankies were stranded in California, with gigs to play in Pasadena. Gradually, the Hacienda's utilities were cut off, and one by one, the commune disbanded.
A band of shaky determination might have given up. But the Hankies were blissfully unburdened by any determination whatsoever, at least to achieve any conventional measure of success. They got their day jobs.
Scotty: "We got into construction because we decided if we couldn't put the world on the right track through our music, we might as well try to make it a little prettier."
Steve: "What right track? All we ever stood for is debauchery."
Scotty shrugs and indicates assent with a beer belch.
Debauchery they had certainly practiced as an extracurricular activity, but now, playing Hazels, Vitales and other dingy bars of what is now Old Town Pasadena, they incorporated it into their, uh, aesthetic. They dumped their pompadour wigs, kept some of the '50s repertoire but jacked it up into punky grizzly rock, and while they apparently never consciously signed on to the punk movement, they certainly embraced it in spirit. Call it a zeitgeist thing, specifically for Scotty, who had a habit of transgressing even his own Pantagruelian capacity for suds. He cultivated the ability to neatly empty the contents of the band's tip jar just in time to heave into it without missing a line.
What may have diminished his reputation added to his legend, and the band became a favorite of Pasadena's decrepit dive bars. They played, and still play, parties and weddings (apart from which, their only current standing gig is at the Gem City Grill in Monrovia, the fourth Saturday of each month).
They sometimes smashed up their instruments, as if they had money to replace them, which, of course, they didn't. Usually it was on purpose, but once it was accidental. This was during a Doo Dah Parade 10 or 12 years ago. Steve and Raghead, another transient member of the band, had rehearsed a stunt in which they'd swap guitars in mid-song, tossing them to each other from across the float. Nice idea, but the guitars collided in midair and splintered, breaking off the neck of Steve's prized '74 Sunburst Les Paul; a teenager absconded with its body as it tumbled into the street. Once they played a biker wedding, whose guests hurled plates of beans and franks at them, which Scotty insists was "a sign of affection."
"Yeah, they wouldn't have tacked up that chicken wire in front of the stage if they hadn't liked us," Steve says.
"We got beans and franks all over us anyway," Scotty recalls.
Along the way, they added a few of their own novelty songs to the set-list, but songwriting was never much of a priority. Scotty attributes his meager lyrical output to an early trauma. As a child he'd written a satiric poem about Noah's Ark; as a result, his churchgoing grandma "disapproved and smacked me," and apparently his muse. Their one album, self-released in 1988, was subsidized by 200 friends who all contributed $10. Each is listed as a producer. Of the 1,000 copies pressed, 20 remain.
They could go on. Steve, in fact, for 12 years scrupulously kept a journal chronicling each and every Hanky performance, so they really, really could go on. Yeah, they've mellowed, at least to the point where Scotty no longer chunders into tip jars. Scotty, who in the early days was briefly married to a former groupie, remarried 13 years ago and lives in La Verne. Steve and his former wife, also a long-ago habitue of the Hanky Hacienda, called it quits two years ago after 25 years of marriage. The important thing is, they kept playing, and will keep on indefinitely, though they've gotten choosier about the gigs, of which there are usually two or three a month.
How much do they get for a gig? Scotty, whose speaking voice is tonally analogous to Lee Marvin's, makes a low growling sound. "Suffice it to say we're not doing this for the money. We'd probably play for nothing, but don't say that. But you know, we're into our third generation of fans. It's just amazing the number of people we run into that recognize us daily on the street. I'll be in San Dimas, I'll see somebody with a T-shirt with my face on it, and I'll tell them, 'That's me. I'm Snotty Scotty.' It happens to Steve on painting jobs. It's always, 'I saw you at such and such,' and they always seem to have had fun. 'I met my first wife at your show,' or 'You played our wedding.' That alone, in and of itself, makes it worthwhile."
And so we adjourn, walking out into the blinding sky on a day of scouring Santa Ana winds and climbing into Scotty's somewhat battered white van. My car has died and I'm hitching a ride. Steve settles into a beanbag chair in the rear. Scotty slips a Neil Young cassette into the stereo and cusses the van as its motor starts knocking going uphill.
"You know something," says Steve, lighting a cigarette, "Scotty and I've been married longer than anybody."
Scotty turns and glares at him in mock contempt.